The best ways to maximize Air Canada’s Aeroplan program

May 6, 2020

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Editor’s note: At TPG, our top priority is providing our readers with the information you need to make educated decisions about travel and your rewards-earnings strategy. This is not the best time to travel, domestically or internationally, but we are sharing this content to help you plan for future travel once coronavirus concerns have subsided. This post makes reference to a number of routes that are temporarily suspended but are expected to resume as people begin traveling again.

Frequent flyer programs have grown from small in-house operations to reward loyal customers into corporate behemoths, driving billions of dollars in annual revenue for their parent airlines. While we generally think of frequent flyer programs as being run by the airlines they’re associated with, there’s one notable exception: Air Canada’s loyalty program, Aeroplan, has been independently run for the last several years.

That’s all set to change in 2020 when Air Canada takes the reins again, after finalizing a deal to purchase Aeroplan last year. Many award travelers are worried about how these changes will affect a valuable and popular loyalty program.

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An Air Canada Airbus A330-300. (Photo courtesy of Air Canada)
An Airbus A330 taking off. (Photo courtesy of Air Canada.)

In This Post

Upcoming changes to Aeroplan

While we don’t know what the exact award prices will be when Air Canada absorbs Aeroplan later this year, we got a lot of clarity when Mark Nasr, Air Canada’s Vice President, Loyalty and E-commerce, spoke at the World Aviation Festival in London last September. You can read TPG’s detailed coverage of his remarks, but here are the highlights:

  • Award charts are (mostly) here to stay: While the scourge of dynamic award pricing has been slowly creeping through North America, Nasr confirmed that Air Canada will continue to use a published award chart for many flights, including intercontinental routes and long-haul partner awards.
  • North America is going revenue-based: The notable exception is that award rates for flights within North America will be tied to the cash cost of the ticket, like we currently see with Southwest and JetBlue. These are the most commonly-redeemed awards in the program, and adopting a revenue-based system allows Air Canada to guarantee “last seat availability.” Again, while we don’t have hard numbers, Nasr indicated that there would be caps on award costs in many cases.
  • Air Canada recognizes the value of sweet spot awards: Speaking about sweet spot awards, Nasr dropped an interesting quote that should quell some fear about these upcoming changes: “If you have members engaged enough to find it that’s good. And knowing that those ‘special’ rewards are available and publicized can improve the overall reputation of the program.”

These comments from Nasr come on the heels of a number of changes Aeroplan announced to its program back in July 2019. Those earlier announcements were a bit of a mixed bag, with some good news and some bad.

Let’s start with the bad news: as of September 2019, Aeroplan has removed the ability to book Round-The-World (RTW) award tickets and multi-city tickets (i.e. those that include a stopover or open jaw). Aeroplan said that just 0.3% of redemptions utilized these features, but they’re becoming increasingly rare across the entire industry and it’s sad to see another option disappear.

Now on to the good news: Aeroplan changed its award ticket fee structure, and introduced free cancellations and refunds within 24 hours of booking. Note that if you cancel a ticket that was booked by a phone agent, the 30 Canadian dollar service fee will not be refunded. You can now also cancel and refund your ticket up to two hours before departure (for a fee), whereas previously award tickets could not be refunded within 21 days of departure. We’re also seeing refund fees drop to 125 Canadian dollars per ticket on the Aeroplan website and 30 Canadian dollars for Aeroplan Diamond members. Super Elite 100K members won’t pay a refund fee at all, and can also change their itineraries and cancel award tickets for free.

Buy Aeroplan miles for as little as 1 cent each

Before diving into the more conventional ways to earn Aeroplan miles, it’s worth addressing a very unique promotion Aeroplan is running. From May 7 at 10 a.m. Eastern Time through May 13 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time, Aeroplan will be selling miles for as little as 1 cent each. Unlike traditional bonuses for the purchase of miles, which increase based on the number of miles you purchase, the price here will be tied to the total amount of miles sold. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • The first 10 million miles sold: receive a 115% bonus (1 cent per mile)
  • Next 100 million miles sold: receive a 90% bonus (1.1 cents per mile)
  • After 110 million miles sold: receive a 65% bonus (1.3 cents per mile)

Aeroplan members are allowed to buy up to 250,000 miles per transaction and up to 500,000 miles per year, but bonus miles are not included in that calculation. Of course, many people might be hesitant about buying miles during a pandemic, so to help decide whether this deal makes sense for you, check out TPG’s full analysis of Aeroplan’s buy-miles promotion.

It’s also worth noting that during this promotion, 50% of your purchased miles will count toward Air Canada’s current elite-status promotion, which runs until May 31.

Just how good of a deal is this? for $750 you could buy the 75,000 miles needed to fly ANA’s new “The Room” business class from New York-JFK to either Tokyo Narita (NRT) or Tokyo Haneda (HND). This flight normally retails for $6,000 to $9,000 each way, so even after paying ~$200 in taxes, you’ll still be looking at a savings of over $5,000.

Related: How to avoid fuel surcharges on award travel

ANA’s “The Room” business class. (Photo by Zach Griff / The Points Guy)

Another great option would be spending $575 to buy 57,500 miles on sale and book Turkish Airlines’ new 787 business class. Turkish has long been known for having some of the best food and service in the skies, but the new cabins on these Dreamliners marks the first time in decades that Turkish will offer a competitive business-class seat to match.

Turkish 787 business class. (Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.)

This has the potential to be an incredibly lucrative deal, but depending on how many people take advantage of it it could cause a significant shortage in Star Alliance award space. With airlines operating severely reduced schedules, selling 100 million miles or more could cause intense competition for some of the sweet spot awards mentioned below.

Related: Book this, not that: Star Alliance award flights

How to earn Aeroplan miles

There are a number of ways to earn Aeroplan miles easily, though one option worth considering would be crediting revenue flights on Star Alliance airlines to Aeroplan. Especially with United’s shift to dynamic pricing, frequent travelers might find themselves getting a higher return by crediting to Aeroplan instead of to United MileagePlus. United tickets accrue miles based on the distance of the flight and the fare class at the following rates:

Aeroplan also partners with a number of transferable points programs, letting you instantly top up your account when you’re ready to book an award. You can transfer points to Aeroplan at the following ratios:

If you’re looking to build up your Aeroplan balance quickly, consider applying for one of these credit cards to take advantage of a valuable welcome bonus:

The information for the Capital One Venture has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

How to redeem Aeroplan miles

As it stands now, Aeroplan’s award chart is incredibly valuable both for short-haul economy flying or international premium-cabin travel. We’ll start with trips within North America since that’s where the biggest changes are going to occur. If you’re able to, it might even make sense to book in advance to lock in the current rates.

Within North America

The chart below shows the round-trip award costs for Aeroplan awards within North America, with one-way flights available for half the cost.

The best sweet spot here is for the short-haul economy flights for only 7,500 miles each way. TPG values Aeroplan miles at 1.5 cents each, so you’re redeeming ~$112 worth of miles. Aeroplan lists the following routes as eligible for these short-haul awards, including a number from Toronto (YYZ) and Montreal (YUL) to the U.S.

While these flights are quite short they’re often incredibly expensive, such as these $600+ one-way flights from Montreal to Washington Dulles (IAD), which you can book for only 7,500 Aeroplan miles assuming there is award availability.

Longer economy flights in North America price out at 12,500 miles each way which is pretty much the industry average, so the benefit to using Aeroplan is the flexible transfer options you have for earning miles in the first place. Another option would be booking transcontinental business-class flights on United (especially routes like Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX) that are operated by the shiny new 787-10s) since Aeroplan doesn’t charge any mileage premium for these longer routes.

Related: How (and when) to book United awards through partners

International travel

Aeroplan really shines when it comes to award rates for long-haul travel, but there’s one important caveat that eats away at the value of the program: Aeroplan passes on fuel surcharges for most partner airlines, which can get quite egregious.

Lufthansa is one of the worst offenders, and while first-class award rates from the U.S. to Europe are tantalizingly cheap at 70,000 miles each way, the ~$780 in taxes eat away at the value of your “free” award.

Related: 6 tips for booking Lufthansa first-class awards

You’d be better off picking an airline like Swiss, that keeps its taxes under $30:

Heading west, you can get a great deal flying EVA Air’s phenomenal business class to Taipei (TPE) and connecting on to anywhere in Asia for 75,000 to 77,500 miles. Note that award availability tends to be best on the Seattle (SEA) to Taipei route.

Aeroplan also deserves some credit for keeping some of the longest journeys reasonably priced. You can fly in business class from the U.S. to India and east, west and south Africa for the same 75,000 miles as if you were taking a considerably shorter flight to Japan. Even flights to Australia and New Zealand only cost 80,000 miles each way in business class.

Another reason that I love Aeroplan is that it offers an incredibly reliable search engine for Star Alliance award availability. Even if I’m booking through a different program like Avianca LifeMiles, I’ll often use Aeroplan to identify dates with award space. Aeroplan also does a great job (literally) highlighting mixed-cabin itineraries in a bright yellow box, so there’s no confusion about what class of service you’re actually booking.

Related: The best websites for searching Star Alliance award availability

Bottom line

Aeroplan is set to undergo some pretty significant changes this year when Air Canada reintegrates the currently-independent program, but the good news is we have plenty of warning that changes are coming. If you’re worried about good-value premium-cabin awards disappearing you can book those now, by transferring miles in from Amex or Capital One.

While this might sound naive given the rash of severe and unannounced award chart devaluations in recent years, I’m confident that based on Mark Nasr’s comments, Air Canada understands the current value of Aeroplan to its customers, and aims to preserve a good amount of that value. The biggest test will be how they handle the revenue-based pricing for North American flights, but again, at least we’ve been given plenty of warning to prepare for that change.

Featured photo by Ethan Steinberg/The Points Guy.

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